Taken at glimmering, shimmering surface value, Michael Mann's latest thriller is so streamlined it threatens to be superficial.
Essentially a two-hander confined to the inside of a taxi cab, it offers snippets of dialogue and flashes of psychological insight as cabbie Max (Foxx) drives sociopath Vincent (Cruise) through a series of gleaming LA nightscapes. Tyres hum, lights twinkle, skyscrapers soar. Intermittently, the cab stops. Cruise steps out, silk suit matching his silver hair; the camera follows him as he locates his targets and shoots them, two in the chest, one in the head. Then it's back in the cab: tyres hum, lights twinkle, skyscrapers soar.
So streamlined it threatens to be superficial - at surface value. Surfaces, however, can be deceptive. Mann knows this, hinting at the wilderness that lies beneath LA's manmade glitter by having coyotes roam the night streets. (Cod profundity? Michael Mann? Surely not.) So it's with this in mind that viewers should squint harder, standing on their heads if that's what it takes, to see Collateral from a different perspective.
Consider the movie's refusal to shine a torch on Vincent's fractured mindset. Shallow? In a less competent Hollywood thriller, perhaps. Here it's deliberate, the filmmakers resisting the urge to attribute a killer's actions to a bruised background. Instead, we find out next to nothing. What we do learn is untrustworthy, Vincent telling Max he spent his youth in foster homes after killing his abusive father. Then comes the sick grin, dead eyes glinting as he says: "I'm joking."One thing's for sure - Vincent isn't built like other people. Why doesn't matter. He just isn't. This is a guy who kills without questions and without remorse, a blank-souled assassin who views his targets as meaningless motes of dust swirling through an uncaring universe.
To be faced with such emptiness is absorbing, especially when it dwells within the shell of Hollywood's biggest, brightest star. Like Max, who constantly gazes into this void through his rearview mirror, audiences will be hypnotised. Stare hard enough and you'll catch flickers of Vincent's dormant humanity: insisting that his kidnapped driver stops off to visit his sick mother ("She carried you in her womb for nine months!"); exhibiting fury at Max's mistreatment at the hands of his radio controller; and saving his hostage's life during the movie's consummate set-piece, a pulsating gun battle that tears through a packed nightclub.
The key, however, is Mann's refusal to funnel his bad guy towards redemption. Like Manhunter's Will Graham or Heat`s Neil McCauley, Vincent's a professional who takes immense pride in his work. Any warm spots fail to melt the icy core. Any hints of emotion only serve to complicate and tantalise, daring viewers to connect the hazy psychological dots put before them.
Glance beneath Collateral's sleek veneer and you'll also spot the intriguing theme of fatalism versus nihilism, Vincent's negativity never denting Max's belief that he sits in Destiny's palm. He's right, too. In Collateral, chance meetings simply don't exist, Mann implying that paths are mapped out on a cosmic blueprint. Of course, this is handy when his film's climax pivots on a coincidence the size of Orange County. Again, it's about viewing Mann's thriller from a slanted angle: what would elsewhere be gross manipulation is here part of the grand design. Mann's an obsessive, as driven as his characters. He doesn't take short cuts.
He also doesn't work to customary rhythms, unafraid to hit the gas or decelerate as the mood takes him. Just look at the opening scene, Max connecting with an attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith) as he drives her to work; or Vincent chatting to a jazz-club owner (Barry Shabaka Henley) about Miles Davis. Other directors would have given these set-ups a cursory glance on the way through. Mann sticks around, digging out nuances.
Yet Collateral never forgets to propel itself forward, gaining terrific momentum as the LAPD (Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg), FBI (Bruce McGill) and assorted Mobsters (Javier Bardem) set their cross-haired sights on Vincent. If the first 80 minutes is all chat and atmosphere, the final 40 pass in a flurry of blistering set-pieces. This is the Mann who gave us Heat's running gun battle, the Mann who can deliver jolts so precise that it's possible to forgive Vincent's troubling metamorphosis into besuited Terminator.
It's relentless and streamlined, superficial thrills to quicken the heart. Well, on the surface at least.